India sending mixed signals
2017-09-18, LIN MINWANG

The militaries of India and the United States are holding the Yudh Abhyas (“training for war” in Hindi) joint exercise in the US until Sept 27. 

The joint drill, an annual feature since 2004 that focuses on anti-terrorism maneuvers, has come just two months after the US, Japan and India held the Malabar 2017 naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. Also, from Sept 13 to 15, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting India.

India’s close interactions with the US and Japan have sent mixed signals to the outside world after the country experienced a bump in its relations with China. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, East China’s Fujian province, from Sept 3 to 5, after a two-month-long standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in China’s Donglang area. (The five BRICS economies are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.)

China has showed its sincerity in maintaining good relations with India. The two large developing countries, both important players in Asia, are critical to fairer global governance. So, India should learn from the standoff and help China to build sound bilateral ties.

Washington and New Delhi now want to upgrade the September exercise to “a more complex, combined arms, division-level” drill. 

The US Navy’s Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, the Indian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and Japan’s 27,000-ton helicopter carrier cruiser Izumo all took part in the trilateral drill.

India has been trying to highlight its geopolitical importance to the US and Japan, but it must take the accompanying costs into account. 

Modi’s election as India’s prime minister three years ago has helped lift US-India ties. 

The two countries’ defense cooperation, in particular, has evolved into a quasi-military alliance. The process started when then US president Barack Obama was invited to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2015. It developed through the bilateral defense pact aimed at simplifying the transfer of US defense technology to India.

Donald Trump’s election as US president, however, turned out to be a letdown for Modi, who managed to meet with Trump only five months after he entered the White House.

The Trump administration might be aware of India’s “strategic significance”, but it is not likely to fully endorse Modi’s aggressive China policy, even though it can give Washington an opportunity to drive a wedge between Beijing and New Delhi. 

Besides, few experts on India studies in the US would describe New Delhi as an apt ally that commits itself to an alliance without making waves in its neighborhood.

For India, on the other hand, the US can hardly be a reliable partner, especially with the Trump administration poised to shirk some of its global obligations and focus on domestic affairs.

As for India-Japan ties, analysts were watching to see whether Abe, during his visit to India, would seek to synergize India’s Act East policy with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. 

And it will soon become clear whether the two countries’ Asia-Africa Growth Corridor will be complementary, or a countermeasure, to the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative.

India would do well to not become a mere piece on the US-Japan chessboard.


The author is a researcher at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai.

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